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Spain on edge as Madrid train bomb trial begins PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 07 August 2008

REUTERS, MADRID- Twenty-nine people go on trial in Spain on Thursday charged over the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people, and triggered the fall of the government and the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq.

Spain has raised its terror alert to medium from low as the trial opens just weeks before the third anniversary of the March 11 bombs, the deadliest al Qaeda-related attack in Europe.

Hundreds of police will protect the Madrid courtroom where the accused -- Arabs and Spaniards -- face charges ranging from membership of a terrorist group to stealing dynamite from mines in northern Spain to sell to the bombers, often in exchange for drugs.

Of these, three are alleged to have masterminded the attack. A fourth key organiser was one of seven suspects who blew themselves up in an apartment block weeks after the bombs.

"This is the beginning -- or rather the end of the long, hard road we've been on for the last three years," said Pilar Manjon, the head of a victims association.

The bomb exploded on four packed commuter trains and as well as killing 191, injured about 2,000 people.

They not only traumatised Spain but also led to the fall of the conservative government that initially blamed Basque separatists ETA for the attack, which hit three days before general elections.

When ever more evidence pointed to Islamist militants, Spaniards turned out in force to demonstrate against the government and voted them out of power. Soon afterwards, new Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero fulfilled an election pledge to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq.

The prosecuting judge who prepared the case linked the bombs to a call by Osama bin Laden to attack countries that backed the US-led war in Iraq and to an Internet essay that urged attackers to hit Spain before the elections.

An almost 100,000 page report drawn up by the state prosecutor and seen by Reuters says four men heeded the al Qaeda call and started planning the attack in 2003. They recruited others at a Madrid mosque and from common criminal circles.

One of the alleged ideologues, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, who is charged with inciting people to carry out the attack, will be the first to take the stand in Madrid.

Ahmed, known as "Mohamed the Egyptian", has already been convicted of belonging to a terrorist group and sentenced to 10 years in jail by an Italian court. He has been extradited to Spain for the Madrid hearings.

"It will be very difficult to prove that he had any responsibility for the attacks," said Luca D'Auria, who defended Ahmed in Italy and is part of his legal team in Madrid.

"The evidence against him was collected in Milan and there is no proof that he had any contact with the organisers, with the others accused of the attacks," D'Auria told Reuters, adding that Ahmed just knew other suspects from attending the mosque.

The hearings are expected to last until July when the three-judge panel will retire to consider the evidence. They are not expected to come out with their verdicts and sentences until October at the earliest.

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